Opinion: Laura Kelly and a return to sanity

Contested recounts, an independent spoiler candidate and national publicity each time our secretary of state starts a new round of antics. Never a dull moment in Kansas these days.

Enough already. To heck with those guys. I am not even going to bother naming them. It is time to talk about Laura Kelly and the return to sanity.

Kelly is an experienced state senator, with particular expertise in the state budget, which is desperately needed right now. She easily won the Democratic primary for governor against several other good candidates and can now focus on November. More importantly, Democrats and their independent and moderate Republican sometime-allies are now free to focus on Kelly. Otherwise, they just may hand the election to the Republican nominee.

The Democrats could not have chosen a better candidate, to contrast their party with all the foolishness and drama in Topeka over the past eight years. Kelly is low-key, the kind of Kansan who prefers a few words instead of many and who seems less than comfortable in the public spotlight. She brings experience instead of show. Kelly had a whole career delivering education and social services before seeking elective office. She is familiar with many of the state budget’s most expensive and most troubled programs, including Medicaid. She promises a step-by-step plan to repair the damage done to Medicaid recipients by former Gov. Sam Brownback’s privatization plan. Her experience on the state budget committee brings her the practical knowledge needed to reverse other aspects of that disastrous experiment. No wonder that former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius encouraged her to run and has been energetically campaigning for her.

After World War I, Warren G. Harding won the presidency by promising a “return to normalcy.” Like humorist Dave Barry, I am not sure if “normalcy” is a real word, but sanity certainly is, and Kansas sure could use some right now. The Brownback experiment busted the budget, while the secretary of state wasted time chasing virtually nonexistent illegal voters down rabbit holes and losing lawsuits at our expense. On most issues, Kelly is closer than her Republican opponent is to every living Kansas ex-governor except Brownback. For example, like all of them, she opposed Brownback’s attempts to politicize the selection of judges. Like the former governors, she opposed Brownback’s attempts to oust Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss and his colleagues in 2016. In the end, voters retained the judges — the cooler heads, and the ex-governors, prevailed. This is what a return to sanity looks like. There is more at stake here than partisanship.

I would caution Kelly’s supporters to stay away from the phrase, “anybody but (fill in the blank).” Such campaigns rarely work. A case in point is 2014, when challenger Paul Davis said little about his own qualifications and plans. Instead, his focus was “anybody but Brownback.” Lacking a reason to vote for Davis as opposed to against Brownback, late-deciding voters in 2014 helped hand Brownback a narrow re-election. The ante increases for Kelly because she also has a wild-card independent in the race. If voters seek only an alternative to the Republican nominee, they may get confused between the two other candidates.

This fall’s message should be “nobody but Kelly will do,” not “anybody but (fill in the blank).” Kelly’s extensive policy experience and unassuming Midwestern demeanor are just the ticket for a return to sanity.

— Michael A. Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.


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